Business

Japan weighing support to rush life-saving machines to virus-hit hospitals

Reuters, Jiji

The government is eager to help crank up output of ventilators and oxygenators and help introduce the critical equipment to hospitals as the nation braces for an upswing in coronavirus infections, the economic revitalization minister said Thursday.

The government will consider measures to support the production and installation of ECMO machines, which can provide potentially life-saving treatment for coronavirus patients, in an emergency economic package the government is drawing up to deal with the pandemic, Economic Revitalization Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said.

ECMO stands for extracorporeal membranous oxygenation, a method used to pump oxygen directly into patients while removing carbon dioxide, effectively replacing their breathing mechanism. Nishimura did not mention any details of the potential measures, including a budget.

Nishimura said the government is developing a system to train personnel more quickly so they can use ECMO machines on patients with severe symptoms of COVID-19, the pneumonia-like disease caused by the virus.

The government is hammering out a broad economic support package that is set to be finalized next week. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday also promised support for the nation’s devastated airlines and said the support package would be big enough to stave off Japan’s return to deflation.

The government will also distribute two reusable cloth face masks to all of the roughly 50 million households in Japan as stocks of disposable masks have run out at drugstores and other shops amid the coronavirus fright.

The pandemic has weakened an economy that was already on the cusp of recession through travel bans and social distancing policies and other directives that are dealing a major blow to the transport, retail and tourism sectors, among others.

“The aviation industry is our country’s core infrastructure that must not be damaged, so we’ll take steps to support it,” Abe told the Diet without specifying what the support package might entail.

Many other developed countries are already rolling out support measures for their air carriers as the pandemic drags passenger traffic worldwide to minimal levels.

Price growth in Japan has been low or negative since 1998, though repeated stimulus programs devised by the Abe administration since 2012 have helped boost the economy and raise prices. Core consumer inflation hit 0.6 percent in February.

“We’re now laying out a bold stimulus package. This will of course involve (issuing) government bonds,” Abe said, urging the Bank of Japan to press on with massive bond purchases to keep borrowing costs low.

“It’s been proven (that this) … does not trigger hyper-inflation or a yen free fall,” as some had suggested, Abe said.

Japan Airlines, meanwhile, has warned it will cut international flights from by almost two-thirds in April.

Sources say ANA Holdings, the parent of Japan’s largest carrier All Nippon Airways, is considering taking out a loan of around ¥100 billion to soften the impact of the virus.

With confirmed coronavirus cases in Japan climbing to around 2,200 and 66 deaths, pressure is growing on the government to order a lockdown, especially in Tokyo, where many new infections are appearing.

Ryutaro Kono, chief Japan economist at BNP Paribas, said he expected the economy to contract 2.9 percent in fiscal 2020, which began Wednesday, if the capital is put under lockdown.

The owners of some of Japan’s biggest department stores on Wednesday reported an unprecedented slump in March sales after they cut operating hours to deal with the outbreak.

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